Cristina Spindler

Peconic River Herb Farm

Calverton, N.Y.

Color in the herb garden is like the subtle but beautiful variations in natural fiber weavings done in plant based dyes. Part of the appeal is based on the beauty and usefulness of the plant itself and not just on its seasonal bloom. One of the most outstanding color harmonies in recent memory was visiting a neighbors dooryard garden under a brilliant winter sky and seeing a dusting of fresh white snow on the steely blue gray of Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’- not a flower in sight. Or how about the chartreuse glow of golden hops against a hunter green trellis? The soft dappled green and cream combo of pineapple mint woven under and through a soft pink rose? A ruffled fringe of blue green rue or lady’s mantle around an arching fountain of smoky purple fennel? The once planted/ever present Perilla or Shiso scatters its purple leaved prodigy around as perfectly placed as if you’d schemed and dreamed of those combinations all winter. One successful container planting this past summer consisted of nothing more than purple and tri-color sage with ‘Vera Jamison” Sedum in an old concrete pot. Another was a window box of pale lemon yellow ‘Moonlight’ Nasturtium and my favorite scented geranium ‘Gray Lady Plymouth’. A new scented geranium Peppermint tomentosum, had such giant, soft, velvety leaves that it was in danger of being stroked to death!

When herbs do flower, a few of my favorites are; the edible Johnny-jump-up, star of the spring salad bowl, Common chives, which can’t be beat for earliness, productivity, and sheer usefulness, and snow white chamomile for the same reasons. Catmint, whose violet haze first appears in June, does an encore performance in fall if cut back. Of course absolutely nothing beats lavender- the stuff of which gardeners fantasies are made. Mine involves a 2-3 acre planting, an antique copper still, and the whole staff out harvesting with huge willow baskets!! Some of the more exotic flowering herbs with outstanding blooms include: Saffron crocus- primarily because its delicate lavender blooms and fiery orange stigma appear very late (around mid-Oct. on L.I.), and Pineapple Sage for the same reason plus its amazing fragrance- exactly like its namesake. Angelica, a spring bloomer, has towering and statuesque blooms, which will add height to a shady corner. Passionflower, a tender vine, also has outstanding tropical looking blooms but springs back reliably from its roots every year in our gardens.

If you have nooks and crannies to fill, or holes along a walk or wall, two little workhorses of the herb garden come to mind- silver edge and golden lemon thyme. They seem to combine well with almost anything and, as an added bonus, are intensely fragrant.

Of course since the word herb simply refers to any plant which has a useful purpose, we can also stretch the boundaries of the herb garden to include such diverse plants as elderberry with its magical creamy white blossoms followed by gleaming blue-black berries. How about basketry willows whose slender rods provide tones of buff, brown, black, green, burgundy, orange, red, and yellow? The vitamin C laden orange hips of our beloved beach roses make them herb garden candidates as does the porcelain blooms of damask roses whose precious oils have contributed to countless perfumes. Don’t discount the humble sassafras tree, the golden fall display signals that its roots are ready to harvest for spring teas. The firecracker red of ripe Chile peppers, so beautiful in the vegetable garden, yields an oil- capsaicin- that’s warms a lot more than just food. Even the Yews- the ever-present green blobs around every new home foundation- are currently proving their worth as cancer fighters. And I bet you thought herbs were just Parsley, Sage Rosemary, and Thyme!